After helming a feature film (Aurangzeb) and a TV series (Powder), director Atul Sabharwal brings a story that is very close to his heart. His documentary In Their Shoes that releases on March 13revolves around the shoe making industry in Agra, which is also his family business. Through this film, Atul tells the tale of an industry, raising pertinent questions and highlighting the personal relationships associated with it.

Atul Sabharwal

Three projects, three different mediums, has it been a conscious decision to explore new territories?

It’s something that happened on the way. I don’t really plan that much as to what will happen and what I should do. I see what the subject demands and whatever medium can do best justice to it. For people it might be a TV series or a documentary or feature, for me it’s the same process of shooting an image, putting two images together, adding sound etc., that is more exciting.

What drove you to make this documentary? Tell us about In Their Shoes.

It’s somewhat of a personal journey. The questions posed in the film are those that I’ve been asking myself for the past couple of years. There is a whole legacy of a family business which neither my brother nor I will join. What will happen to that business? That was the question. This is business sustained both my brother and I when we moved to Mumbai, so there is a lot of gratitude towards it. But it’s not just about my family business but the trade and the city too. It has a history spread over the last four or five centuries. Once I took a macro view at it, I realized that it’s not just my story but also a great story to which people across the country or the world can relate. And that’s how I started exploring it. I started with the personal connect and then spread it to get a macro view, getting other people’s point of view as well.

Did your research largely entail talking to people or did you also refer to text on the subject?

A lot of reference to texts was involved. I went through Subas C Kumar’s book called Indian Leather Industry: Growth, Productivity And Export Performance for data. Although we haven’t used much data in the film, just some quotes. I read through the budget speeches of Manmohan Singh for the years ’91 to ‘93, because those were the government policies that brought in the most dramatic change. Also went through some websites to understand technical things like tanning etc. But all this was done while cutting the film and not before shooting it. First we just wanted to get the voices in. So there was no research done as a pre-production, it was done to make the film more comprehensive by getting data to support what the people in the film are saying.

What would you say is the objective of this film?

The idea is to introspect the term ‘development’ that we have so easily adapted in our lingo. We keep hearing that word in every election. We have a Prime Minister who has developed Gujarat and will now hopefully develop India. But how do we understand ‘development’? The purpose is to ask ourselves, are we taking a holistic approach or is it one-sided? Can there ever be a holistic approach to development? Will some people always lose and some gain? Or can we protect the vulnerable – people who may be capital starved – a little better? It’s not that these people are not enterprising enough, but if the policies are against them, how will they survive? For instance if China has a trade attack on them, are our International trade policies protective of our indigenous artisans? It is all these questions that I try to ask. And in the scenario of all these policies in the background, how the personal relationships inside a middle class house are affected is what I’ve tried to showcase.

Atul Sabharwal still 2

What was the look and feel adopted for the documentary?

I’m personally not a big fan of aesthetics. I feel that aesthetics pushed too far can look cosmetic. There is a life that you photograph and that life has to resonate through the image whether it’s a still photograph or a motion picture image. Or you can add so many of your elements that you sort of kill the real thing and make it something else altogether. But that other side has never been my agenda. I take whatever is there and work with it. When I go to a location or a place, I get attracted to something that to my mind feels cinematic rather than adding lights or color correction etc. So there has been no deliberate attempt to create a look, the look and feel is what the place is – in all three of my projects.

The film has been self-financed, what prompted this decision? Did you try looking for producers?

There are a couple of factors to that. After having made a big studio feature I thought it was a moral duty to go through the same (filmmaking) journey on your own money, on a much smaller level. What a few crores mean to a big studio, a few lakhs mean the same thing to me. I’m also spending a large part of the income on this. So the gamble is at the same magnitude. Also I have a bit of a middle class guilt towards money, that if I’m spending someone else’s money I’m all the more conscious. And I didn’t want to be that conscious on this project and wanted my mind to be free so that I can go deeper.

Also I didn’t know how to explain this project to anybody until it was made, so how would I raise finances for it? It could have taken forever and I was desperate to just go out and start shooting. So I put in my money and started shooting and then editing it. Once it was ready I thought the best way to recover monies would be to release it. The whole process just makes you a little more responsible and enterprising and makes it more personal; you own the film rather than somebody else owning it.

Has PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare distributing the film given it further impetus?

PVR Director’s Rare as far as I know is the only exhibition platform that showcases documentaries. When my film was ready I approached Shiladitya Bora who used to head PVR Directors Rare and is now part of it through his own company, Long Live Cinema. He sees the film and if he likes it, he picks it up. The deal is pretty simple; you put in the expenses for the prints and the publicity and PVR provides you the infrastructure to release it. So you either have the money for it or you raise the money for it. If they don’t like the film then you have to look for alternatives.

The more the film is talked and written about before the release, the more it reaches a wider audience and urges them to watch it. So definitely PVR distributing it gives that push. Eventually you want all your films to be seen, talked about and debated upon. Bombay and to some extent even Bangalore, are cities where most people have moved from some other city to work. Many of those people have also left behind family businesses and will now dedicate their life to some other field. They can all connect to the same emotion and that is what the release will do.

What was the most challenging part during the making?

There were two most challenging things. During the making of it, the most difficult part was asking those personal questions. I ask my father what will happen to the business after him and those aren’t easy questions to ask or answer. But the film’s main thrust rested on that; to answer those questions or at least to pose the questions even if they go unanswered. As a son, not as the director of the film, it was difficult. The second most challenging thing was to come to a narrative, because in a documentary one can’t operate from a script unlike fiction where a script can guide you. In documentaries you just have this footage sitting in front of you, and you have to tie it down in terms of a narrative which isn’t boring and evokes something. It was the most challenging part but we went through a very organic process on it and it has come together beautifully.

Poster of the documentary In Their Shoes

How did you come up with the interesting idea of getting a handmade poster? Reason?

Handmade posters have always attracted me and have a close association with my childhood film viewing experience. They used to be the first point of contact when you’re standing outside the theatre with your family. Back in the 80s and 90s every cinema hall would have this giant hand painted poster and as a child you’d keep gawking at it. But those have faded out and I don’t see people standing under the marquee and staring at film posters anymore. With cable TV and other mediums being there, you already know so much about a movie that the charm of looking at the poster is not relevant anymore. But the idea has stayed with me since childhood.

I work at YRF and they have a wall that has hand painted posters of all the films made by the studio. The person who has painted this wall has been painting their posters for the last 50 years. So I got in touch with him, told him that my film is also about artisans who will probably get lost in some kind of obscurity like the art of poster making is. I asked him if he could come up with something, mainly because posters have stars and a documentary doesn’t have stars so how do you go about making a poster for it. But that man was very enthusiastic about the idea, took it up as a challenge and came up with a poster that does justice to the film.

Has the film been to any festivals? Do you think the festival route works better for indie films?

That was a discussion that came up. I was told that it is far easier to release a film in India once you have a tag or a stamp from a certain reputed festival. And my argument was, in my own country for a story that is home grown, why do I need a foreign stamp? My focus was to get the film released in India because that is the most organic journey. Festivals are important but they are a bonus to reach out to a wider audience across the globe. But why should they validate the film for my core audience, which is in my country. It’s born here, should grow here and then spread out. I haven’t submitted it to many festivals yet, but now once the release is over we’ll see what festivals are opening up in countries that will be relevant.

One reason why people should watch this film?

It’s a fascinating story; a good joyride. You’ll not feel like you’re watching a documentary rather it would feel like you’re watching a film. It’s a story that will keep you engaged. I don’t like to use the word ‘entertained’ very loosely, but it will entertain you in a nice way.

Your future projects?

I’m writing a studio project but it’s in a very nascent stage.